According to writer-director Alain Gomis, L'Afrance is "a combination of France and Africa". It's a place that doesn't exist in reality but is a mixture of memories and hopes which are purely in the mind." This hybrid title is certainly appropriate for this story, about the experiences of El Hadj (Djolof Mbengue), a Senegalese graduate student in Paris who feels conflicted in his own sense of cultural identity and belonging.
"RETURN TO DHAKAR"
Eventually El Hadj plans to return to Dhakar and to teach history in the country of his birth, putting into use his years of study in Europe. "If the inhabitants have to choose exile to survive and to support people back home, it's all over," he maintains.
How will he fit in, though, back 'home' after so long abroad? And what will happen to his relationship with stained-glass restorer Myriam (Delphine Zingg), given that he has a fiancée in Senegal? But just weeks before he's due to finish his dissertation, he's threatened with deportation by the French authorities, meaning all his academic work will be wasted. Desperate to raise the cash for false identity papers, he decides to work illegally on a building site.
In his debut feature, the half-French, half-Senegalese Gomis steers clears of a grittily 'realistic' approach. Instead, the elusive L'Afrance slips between present and past, Europe and Africa, cherished memories and contemporary alienation.
It's a film that wants to explore feelings of ambivalence, and the filmmaker intelligently uses imagery and editing as well as dialogue to convey El Hadj's internal confusion and his increasing physical discomfort. This is magnified after his humiliating treatment by the immigration authorities. (Throughout people are shot in close-up at unusual angles, suggesting that their identities are far from secure.)
"MOVING LEAD PERFORMANCE"
Credit to Mbengue for his controlled yet moving lead performance, and to Gomis for allowing his characters a range of possibilities. There is no definitive answer or solution to the problems in L'Afrance. And the film is certainly worth seeing in relation to that other recent African study of exile and displacement, Waiting For Happiness.
In French with English subtitles